Commentary

Cardinals let the unimaginable happen

No long-term extension for Albert Pujols means St. Louis now in a vulnerable spot

Originally Published: February 16, 2011
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

JUPITER, Fla. -- Even after the news conference Wednesday, even after they explained how they got to this unthinkable point, it's still hard to make sense of what the St. Louis Cardinals have allowed to happen here:

Albert Pujols is about to become a free agent?

How? Why? How could they possibly think this is a good idea?

"The bottom line is," an official of one team said Wednesday, "Albert Pujols is their team. Without him, they're an ordinary team. … And they can't replace him. Nobody can replace him. He's an irreplaceable guy."

[+] EnlargeAlbert Pujols
Brett Davis/US PresswireAlbert Pujols, a career .331 hitter, will be in the final year of his contract with the Cardinals in 2011.

And then this same man delivered a pronouncement that ought to rattle windows from Joplin to Jefferson City. Asked what he thought the chances were that the Cardinals could get Pujols signed after he hits the free-agent auction stand next winter, the official gave this stunning answer:

"None."

Wait. Did he say none? Well, I'm not so sure I agree with that. Optimist that I am, I think those chances are better than zero -- but not higher than 50-50, and very possibly quite lower.

I just know that in another setting this spring, I heard a baseball man, one who knows Pujols very well, use the phrase, "when Albert leaves" -- as in "when" he leaves the Cardinals. And that word, "when," has been stuck in my head ever since.

Look, I don't know for sure where this is heading. I didn't run into Uri Geller in the Cardinals' camp this week, so I can't predict Pujols' future any more reliably than Tony La Russa or Bill DeWitt can.

But I do know they've allowed this saga to reach a dangerous place. And I'm still not sure I understand the thinking.

The big question I've heard asked around the sport this week, as it became apparent there would be no Pujols deal before The Deadline, was: Why didn't the Cardinals try to get Sir Albert signed two years ago? Excellent question.

Their GM, John Mozeliak, is a bright, forward-thinking guy. And he assured us Wednesday that this negotiation was "something that we thought long and hard about," that it was "not something that we just jumped into" and that this team thoroughly understood the "ramifications" of going this route. OK, good to know.

Meanwhile, DeWitt, the chairman of this ownership group, tried his best to paint this process as one the Cardinals have been working at diligently through each of the past two offseasons.

But when he says his team "tried" to get Pujols signed a year ago, be aware that all that "trying" in 2009-10 consisted of one meeting with Pujols' agent, Dan Lozano, last spring training. And that was pretty much the extent of it.

So last offseason's strategy, apparently, was basically to let these negotiations drift into this offseason.

And this offseason, rather than drop the first offer on Pujols' doorstep five minutes after the World Series ended and then start hammering it out from there, the Cardinals waited two months -- until January.

After which, Mozeliak admitted Wednesday, they made exactly one offer.

One?

DeWitt suggested that some tweaking went on afterward over ways to spruce up that offer. But if, after all the sprucing up, the Cardinals wound up with a proposal that clearly wasn't even close to getting this deal done, it's not easy to accept both men's vow that they "made every effort" to get Pujols signed.

Now, there are two sides in every negotiation, obviously. And just as obviously, Pujols' side didn't do much budging, either. So this plot twist isn't about just what the Cardinals did or didn't do.

But it's never been a secret within this sport that Pujols was out to make himself the highest-paid player in history. So the Cardinals have always known what they were dealing with. Always.

Is $30 million a year an insane amount of money to pay anybody, to do just about anything? Of course. And is a 10-year contract a scary deal for a player of any age, whether he's 31 or 21? Hey, no doubt.

But almost all of the debate this winter over what Pujols is worth has missed a key point:

This isn't just a baseball contract.

Not for a player of this stature. And especially not for a player who towers over the rest of his franchise every minute of every day. Even DeWitt admitted that Wednesday.

"Oh, there's more to it," DeWitt said after the formal part of the news conference was over, "with a player like Albert Pujols. … This is an iconic player, a Hall of Fame player. So there's more to it than just how many runs is he going to create this year if he plays X number of games."

Hey, couldn't agree more. So then, if that's true, doesn't a team also have to factor in what the franchise would lose -- in every way -- if that player somehow slips out of its grip and winds up wearing somebody else's cap?

"It would definitely be a negative to the franchise if Albert went elsewhere," DeWitt acknowledged. "And it would be our job to restore that -- with winning baseball.

"I think our fans prioritize winning baseball," he went on. "But they also prioritize iconic players."

DeWitt then proceeded to tell the story of how he spent his day Tuesday -- at the White House, with the great Stan Musial, the most iconic Cardinal of them all.

"And it was very emotional," DeWitt said, "to think of what he has meant to the Cardinals, not only during his playing days but subsequent to when he played. And every time he comes on the field and makes an appearance, the place reveres him and lets him know that."

It's clear the Cardinals don't believe there will be a big market for Albert Pujols next winter. And I think they're dead wrong.

-- A longtime agent

Some day, if the earth spins just right, that's how Pujols' future ought to unfold, wouldn't you say? That's how everyone should be envisioning it -- from Bill DeWitt to Billy the peanut vendor.

Obviously, if the chairman could get so emotional as he painted that picture of the legend that is Musial, he has to have seen that vision on his flat screen for Pujols, too. Hasn't he?

That's where this gets so puzzling. As DeWitt made sure to point out, the Cardinals have been renowned for almost always finding a way to hang on to their icons: Mark McGwire … Ozzie Smith … Chris Carpenter … you name it.

Then why not Pujols? Well, the common thread in nearly all those other deals was that those players were willing to give this team a price break at the old cash register for the privilege of playing in St. Louis. But apparently, the Cardinals have been waiting for Pujols to come to his senses for two years now -- only to learn that word, "discount," isn't in his dictionary.

"I think they bet the farm on the hometown discount, and you can't do that," said the club official quoted earlier. "There are not that many Cliff Lees. Albert Pujols is clearly one of those guys who believes he's the best player in the game and he should get paid like it. So the Cardinals played a game of poker here, and he called their bluff."

Nevertheless, now that The Deadline has come and gone, they're still sitting at the same table. And that's an interesting gamble, too.

It was fascinating to see how little fear the Cardinals seemed to have of Pujols testing the market next winter. Fascinating. That came through in vivid surround sound Wednesday.

"The unknown of what the market may actually deliver for him, I think, is a big question mark on their side," Mozeliak said, "and one that, if they weren't going to get to a true market contract at this point, they might as well just play it out."

But the reason Pujols' side was so willing to play it out, obviously, is that he has even less trepidation about that market than the Cardinals do. So Pujols will come marching into camp Thursday morning with total assurance he's about to have another one of those years for the history books -- and then go out and get paid what he believes he's worth.

"It's clear the Cardinals don't believe there will be a big market for Albert Pujols next winter," one longtime agent said Wednesday. "And I think they're dead wrong."

Well, this just in: We have the next nine or 10 months to play the big guessing game about that market. And won't that be a blast? But it's not that tough a game to play, really.

How often does a player hit the market who has the power to transform a franchise? Well, Albert Pujols is one of those players. And he could transform the face of the Cubs, the Nationals, the Orioles, the Blue Jays or a dozen other teams with one swish of pen on checkbook.

So while it's way too soon for the loyal fans in St. Louis to start waving so long, it's now officially time for them to start getting terrified at the risky spin of the old roulette wheel their favorite team has just taken with its most irreplaceable player.

As the day's events were winding down Wednesday, DeWitt conceded that sitting there at that podium, conducting this news conference, had made this one of his most "disappointing" days as a Cardinal.

So if this one was tough, he was asked, could he imagine how painful it would be to find himself holding a similar news conference one day next winter -- if (horror of horrors) Albert Pujols were to sign with someone else.

"If it's bad news, at the end of the season," DeWitt said, "I don't know who would be having that press conference."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com